Lecture Note: Screening “Toyo’s Camera” with film director/writer Junichi Suzuki, Apr 6, 2010

Nibei Suzuki Junichi

Filmmaker Junichi Suzuki

Nibei Foundation Japan Study Club

Screening Toyo’s Camera” with film director/writer Junichi Suzuki

Presenter:  Mr. Junichi Suzuki, movie producer and directorApril 6, 2010 at Terasaki Foundation Laboratory Building, West Los Angeles

Japan Study Club Lecture Note is complied by Cultural News

Mr. Junichi Suzuki is a movie producer and director. He was born in Kanagawa Prefecture, near Tokyo.  In 1975 he received a B.A. from the University of Tokyo University and started working at Nikkatsu Studio, one of major studio companies in Japan.

Toyo’s Camera is a documentary film that shows the real-life events of the people who were incarcerated in Manzanar, a Californian desert, during World War II.  Mr. Suzuki looks at the Japanese internment experience as “seen” through the camera lens of Toyo Miyatake, renowned professional photographer and an actual internee who was at Manzanar at this time.

It is a compelling history of the day to day camp life and events at this relocation camp.  This film is most valuable as it not only documents this period of history, but also brings to light the issues that the Japanese were faced with at this time.

The film is narrated by Toyo Miyatake’s son, Archie Miyatake, who is now 85.  He has followed in his father’s footsteps and is also an accomplished photographer.  In fact, the third generation photographer of the family, Gary Miyatake and Alam Miyatake are also nobly following this professional tradition.

This film is also in collaboration with two other world renowned photographers, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.  The music is provided by Grammy and Golden Globe Award winner Kitaro.  The end result is a wonderful selection of many photographs.  The film also includes interviews with some of the past internees who had been evacuated during the war.  This addition was quite appreciated as it gave a much poignant and personal perspective from those who had actually experienced life in Manzanar.

Toyo’s Camera: Japanese American History During World War II

Manzanar if one of the more widely known of the ten camps where in total over 120,000 Japanese were imprisoned during World War II.  It is located northeast of Los Angeles at the foot of the Sierra Nevada near the towns of Lone Pine and Independence.  It is today a National Historic Site.

The early part of the film opens with a picture of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1944.  Toyo Miyatake was busy taking wedding pictures at that time when the FBI came in and even arrested some of the guests.

In 1941, then President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9006 ordering the evacuation of those of Japanese ancestry, including Japanese Americans to evacuate to numerous relocation camps.    There were approximately 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry evacuated from the West Coast.

They were forced to either abandon or sell at a loss everything they possessed.  Many were hastily taken to the Santa Anita Race Racetracks and other facilities temporarily before they were later transported to their respective relocation camps.  Ten camps were hurriedly built and set up to accommodate the many evacuees.  This was a period when there was much public animosity against the Japanese just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Toyo Miyatake and his family of six were sent to the Manzanar camp.  It was  eight-hour train ride from LA to Manzanar and from there his group was bused to the Manzanar site.  Toyo snuck in a camera lens and a film holder at this time that he later used to build a camera.  Upon arrival to the camp, each evacuee had to sign up and was then directed to their respective building and block on the camp site.  Toyo Miyatake was designated as Family #9975.

As much as two-thirds of the 10,000 evacuees at Manzanar were American citizens.  Only a very few Germans and Italians were taken into camps, but virtually all native Japanese and American-born citizens of Japanese ancestry were herded into camps.  It is interesting to also note that even the then Governor Carr of Colorado was actually opposed to this internment.

Toyo Miyatake was born in 1895 and later immigrated to America in 1909.  Toyo had originally wanted to be a painter, but later decided to be a photographer.  Even before WWII he was already an accomplished photographer and owned his own studio in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo.  When he photographed people, it was not just the exterior appearance of the individual people, but he was able to bring out the “inner” person.  He had indeed a very special talent to bring forth what a person was truly “made of.”  In his early years his friend and mentor, Edward Weston, helped to develop his skills even more.

In the film, works of another famous photographer is also used. In 1943 Ansel Adams, America’s best known photographer sympathized with the internees and documented Manzanar camp and published “Born Free and Equal.”  Even though Adams is most famous for his breathtaking landscape pictures, the pictures that were taken in Manzanar were focused not on scenes, but on individuals.

Ralph Meritt was the then director of Manzanar who realized the importance of documenting this historical period and informed Toyo to feel free to take his pictures. Mr. Meritt was also a friend of Mr. Weston and Mr. Adams.  Toyo also felt it was his duty to recorded the facts as a photographer so that this kind of thing would never happen again.

The camera that Toyo used to take his wonderful pictures came from humble beginnings.  Utilizing the lens with a shuttle that he had smuggled into the camp, he built his camera.  He built this camera with the help of a carpenter who constructed the wooden box part and then enlisted the help of a mechanic friend who took the bottom of a tripod and fastened together all the metal parts.  A drain pipe was then used as part of the camera.  The final product was a working camera with which he took his many pictures.  He also developed the film himself in the camp.

During World War II, the loyalty of all people of Japanese ancestry came into question, including Japanese Americans. In February 1943, two burning questions regarding their loyalty were asked.  Question #27:  Would you bear arms to defend the US?  Question #28:  Do you swear to be loyal to the US and be against the Emperor of Japan?  Would you join the US Army?

These questions would pit father against son.  The first generation Issei (first generation of Japanese immigrant) could hardly be supportive of the US government at time where they were ripped of their constitutional right and forced into camps.  Plus, some of these questions were very confusing for the Issei, while others feared deportment if they were seen as an enemy of the United States.

In addition, many who had had just seen their civil rights violated, could not or would not swear their allegiance to a country who had treated them so harshly and unfairly.  On the other hand, their children, the second generation Nisei, who had no roots in Japan and were truly American in citizenship, thought and action, were more supportive of the US side.

After all, the second generation, Nisei, were American. In the Nisei generation, there were a sub-category dubbed as “Kibei” who were born in America, went to Japan when they were young who were then generally ten or under, and grew up in Japan. The Kibei, therefore, generally favored the Japan side.  In fact, the Manzanar Riot took place just three months before the questionnaire was asked.  Two were killed in this riot.  Many Issei were angry over the loyalty oath questions and those that answered “No” to either of these questions were sent to the Tule Lake site in Northern California which was considered the camp of dissenters and protestors.

Despite all this commotion, many men of Japanese ancestry enlisted in the Army.  A special 442nd Regimental Combat Team was formed composed of mostly Japanese Americans who fought in Europe.  The motto of the 442nd was “Go for Broke.”  It is a gambling term which means to risk all in the hope of winning big.

Also, there was much pride in doing a good job so that these men “would not lose face” and to prove that they were indeed true Americans through and through. This unit was later distinguished as the most highly decorated regiment in the history of the United States Armed Forces. In the famous Lost Battalion 442nd fight in France, there were 800 causalities in an effort to save 200 in these fights.

It is also interesting to note that there was some early animosity between the mainland Japanese Americans and the Hawaiian Japanese American. Yet after some of the Hawaiian Japanese Americans visited a relocation camp and saw firsthand what their mainlander counterparts were going through, they then understood them better.  It was from this period on that they all got along much better.  The Hawaiians said that they had to admit that they were not even sure if they would have volunteered to join the US war effort and enlist into the Army if they had been so treated by the American government.

One member of the 442nd was a man who would later become a Senator from Hawaii; his name is Daniel Inouye. He admitted that many Hawaiians did resent the Mainland enlistees, but after an overnight visit to the Rower Relocation Camp, he said he was not sure if he would have volunteered himself if he had been subjected to such conditions.  He added that it would take an extraordinary dedication to step up to the plate.

Daniel Inouye also gave an interview in this film where he gave touching insights of how he felt during the war and upon its aftermath.  He said that he had a background as serving as a Sunday school teacher and teaching the Ten Commandments.  Despite his religious history, he stated that when he was only 18, he strongly proclaimed, “I killed my first German and I am proud of it.”  Such declarations made him feel guilty, but he felt this way due to his strong sense of loyalty to America.

Senator Inoue had even surprised himself in discovering that war can change one’s character and personality so drastically.  When a German soldier pulled photos out from his pocket, Mr. Inouye thought this German would grab the pistol. So he smashed the enemy by his rifle, but he discovered it to be a photos of the slain man’s wife and kids.  It was then that he realized that the man he had just killed was simply another real human being, just like himself.  He was then able to realize that even in war, there is a common thread of humanness that runs through each individual, regardless of what circumstances may be bestowed upon one.

As for the Manzanar camp, Toyo was busy taking pictures that gave one an insight into what camp life was really liked. Some of the everyday activities and events depicted in the film through Toyo’s camera were: toy loan center; birthday party; school; fire department; beauty salon; Kabuki performance; wood carving class; oil panting class; baseball and football games; judo; weddings; mochitsuki or rice-pounding sweets; kimonos; sewing; embroidery; machine shop, welding; farming; carpentry; fish store; dentist and many, many more scenes.  One fun fact was that the Manzanar sports team that competed with the surrounding high school was always able to beat them because they were always the home team because they were prohibited to go out from the camp.

There are now annual pilgrimages to Manzanar; the 39th was in 2008.

Another important chapter of this saga, was that in 1988, President Regan declared that the American government had made a mistake of stripping the civil rights of those interned and those who had been in the camps received both a letter of apology from the government, as well a $20,000 in reparations.

After the screening

An interesting question and answer session then followed:

The session started with Gary Miyatake, grandson of Toyo Miyatake, graciously thanking Mr. Suzuki for having created this film and documenting such an important piece of American history.

Q: Were there Internment of Italians and Germans?  Some Germans were interned.

A:  Yes, but a very small number; yet most of the Japanese Americans were interned.  JACL (Japanese-American Citizens Leagues said that the interment of the Japanese-Americans was based on racial discrimination, while the Italian Americans and German-Americans were based on those who were considered politically dangerous.

Q:  What has been the distribution of the movie?

A:  This film has been shown in both Japan and the US.  This film ran for seven months in six theaters in Japan, but has not been very popularly received.  Many Japanese are really not very interested in the Japanese American history unfortunately.

Q:  What was the extent of the internment?

A:  Not all Japanese and Japanese-Americans were evacuated.  The west coast was evacuated, but those in the Midwest, East and Hawaii were not interned.

A:  When a young Japanese-American was asked what she would take if she had to go to such a camp today, she said she would take her cell phone. Another young person commented on his desire to start studying about this event in history.

Q:  What was a difficult aspect regarding creating this film?

A:  As far as raising money, the Japan Foundation and the Japanese government’s Cultural Affair department helped fund a part of this.

Q:  Can you, Mr. Suzuki relate to this film?

A:  When I came to Los Angeles in 2001, I didn’t understand why there had been so much focus on the internment camps, but later understood it is a very serious issue.  I feel it is my duty to make this movie for the Japanese and the Japanese American people.  Nonetheless, it is still difficult to make a whole history movie on a limited budget.

Also, Mr. Suzuki spoke about how many Issei just made the best of this situation and saying, “Shikata ga nai.”  Literally meaning “It can’t be helped,” the thought being making the best of situation that one has no control over.  In fact, there were some Issei who even felt the camp life gave them a break from the everyday drudgery of making a living and actually enjoyed this chapter in their lives.  But still others were very angry over their present situation.

The evening ended with the audience most appreciative of all hard work and talent of the late Toyo Miyatake and the dedication of Junichi Suzuki for creating such an insightful documentary film.